Turkish Minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator Egemen Bağış, at a press conference held for Istanbul's foreign press Tuesday night, reiterated his positive reading of the EU's annual progress report on Turkey and deflected both the criticisms found within the report and those registered by the audience of journalists who attended the press meeting.
"When I read the report, and analyze it, and compare it with the previous 12 reports, the way I interpret it, we don't have to wait for another 13 years or 13 reports for full membership. Membership is now a much more achievable goal for Turkey than it ever was," said Bagış.
The report, which covers the period from early October 2009-October 2010, notes that "progress is measured on the basis of decisions taken, legislation adopted, and measures implemented."
"Of course this is Turkey's progress report. It's not the government's progress report, it's not the media's progress report, it's not the opposition's progress report, it's not the NGO's progress report, but this is an overall progress report for everyone in Turkey, so everyone should assume their responsibility vis a vis the report," said Bağış. "We all have to do our share to make sure Turkey's picture is depicted in a positive and balanced way."
Apart from an in depth assessment of Turkey's progress on each of the 33 chapters of EU accession, the report looks at Turkey's implementation of the Copenhagen criteria with regards to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities.
This year's report identifies the dominant changes in Turkey's domestic political agenda this past year as having been the constitutional reform package, the government's democratic opening to address the Kurdish issue, and the "widening investigations into alleged coup plans." The report characterizes how Turkey addressed these issues as one in which "a confrontational political climate prevailed, marked by the lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise between the main political parties and the government and strained relations between key political institutions."
Bagış responded to this, agreeing that there has not been enough cooperation between parties and blaming opposition parties for not engaging the governing AKP in tackling the challenges that Turkey faces.
The report also offered some strong criticism on the state of freedom of the press in Turkey, citing the "high number of cases initiated against journalists who have reported on the Ergenekon case" and the prosecutions they face. This, the report warns, "could result in self-censorship." The report went on to criticize undue "pressure on newspapers" and "political attacks against the press." Citing the court case on the tax fine ordered in 2009 against the Doğan Media Group, the report notes that the "press exercises self-restraint when reporting following the initiation of this case."
"Lots of the criticism regarding the media is about judicial procedures...On one side, you want the judicial branch to be independent of the executive branch, and on the other side, blaming the executive branch for not interfering with the processes of the judicial branch is a contradiction," said Bağış. "I want to underline here that we respect the media's role to be a mirror showing us the insufficiencies or problems. We even welcome their criticism. But we do not welcome being insulted or being cursed at."
Several journalists at Tuesday's event questioned Bağış on the state of freedom of the press in Turkey. One journalist asked Bagış what the government was planning to do about Kurdish journalists in jail and other journalists who are in jail due to alleged connections with the Ergenekon investigations.
"Things may not be as good as they should be, but things today are much better than they used to be, and things will be better in the near future than they are today," said Bağış, noting that Turkey has changed since "the bad old days." Regarding “politicians and journalists who have been imprisoned for their ideals and articles, not because of direct allegations with attempts to have coups or topple democratically elected governments through undemocratic means, but just by the mere fact that they have written an article or they have recited a poem, things are better today,” said Bağış.
Of the court cases currently facing journalists, Bagış said that “only 11 of them have to do with political issues. The rest are either terrorism related, or attempts to topple a democratically elected government.”
Bagış went on to highlight the some of the positive developments that have taken place in the last decade. He believes that the rights of ethnic and religious minorities have improved, noting that ten years ago, Kurds used to fear admitting that they were Kurds. He also noted that Turkey has allowed some services at historical Greek and Armenian churches that would have been met with hostility in the past. While there was criticism in the report regarding these issues, he pointed out that at least some progress was made this year on each of the 33 EU accession chapters and he remains positive that Turkey will eventually become a member of the European Union.
“Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe,” said Bagış. “The cost of keeping Turkey out is higher than having Turkey in.”